Zipporah sometimes walked a little outside the camp, by herself. She loved her husband and his people. She did. But there were so many of them, people everywhere she turned. Occasionally a great need rose up in her to be alone in the desert, to have no other man or woman in sight. Alone with the stillness of the rocks and the sand, in the harsh landscape where she had been raised, was where she felt God most intensely.
And — she knew she must speak the truth to herself and to God — sometimes she wanted a breathing space from the whispering undercurrents she could sometimes hear: the dark one, the foreigner; why could Moses not marry one of his own kind… As if, she thought, her irrepressible nature reasserting itself, Moses was the only one who had a say in their marriage! Moses knew, of course, of the murmurs, and was sharp with anyone who would dare say such a thing in his presence, but he had agreed with her that it was not his battle to fight.
But the worst had been when she had heard, from an offhand comment the midwife Puah had made, that Miriam had been seen speaking against her to Moses. No, no, she could not believe it so. No, Moses' sister, her first friend in Israel, prophet and sister of prophets, would never do such a thing. And yet a tiny, treacherous part of her still wondered.
And then she saw Miriam herself.
At first she thought it was a dream, or a vision; Miriam had so many duties, was so integral to the life of the people of Israel, that she was never to be found outside the camp. And there was a glory to her, as if her whole body was filled with light. Zipporah could hardly bear to look at her.
"Miriam?" she asked, a little doubtfully. "Sister-in-love?"
Her husband's sister smiled at her. Seven days I will be gone, Miriam said to her, her voice soft but clear in the hush of the desert, the melodious and carrying voice of a singer.
Miriam raised her hand, and Zipporah bent her head to Miriam's touch on her hair. Seven days: you must take my place, to help our people. Zipporah felt a burning within her, as if the Spirit of God, in flame, passed from Miriam's hands. She looked up to see Miriam walking away from her, still shining with an inner light. Zipporah watched her until she was lost amidst the desert, struck still in awe.
She wondered what she had seen. Miriam had explained nothing. She wondered why Miriam had left the camp, and why she was to return in seven days; she would have to ask Moses. But at least, she thought, her heart uncurling a little, she knew that Miriam had not said nor thought ill of her.
And then she thought of Miriam's words. Was she do all that Miriam had done? She would not take Miriam's place -- perhaps Israel would not accept her so, in any case -- but she would do what she could to foster the loving bonds of Israel. She thought: there are the devotionals to look after, and the teaching of the girls. And there was all that Miriam did to help those requiring succor; she would have to make sure none went without aid when it was needful. And what else…?
Elisheba would be a support, she thought; Aaron's wife was the most dependable person she knew. And there were others... Serah, perhaps? They would be able to do this.
She was still thinking as her feet turned back to the camp of Israel.
Shua had been chattering to her while they prepared the quail for supper. It was soothing; Serah let her great-niece's voice wash over her like the river they no longer saw, here in the desert. Shua said, "And of course all the girls are talking about Miriam being gone. Hammoleketh said that Miriam had spoken out against Moses, and that was why she was turned out of the camp."
Serah blinked. "Where did she get that?"
"Oh, her mother was saying it."
Hammoleketh's mother: that would be Maachah. A nice enough girl, Serah remembered, though prone to gossip. Serah looked at Shua with affection and a little concern. "What else has Maachah been saying?"
Shua wrinkled her nose. "Oh, all sorts of things. That Miriam hates Zipporah, that the Lord struck her down with the skin-blister sickness —" She stopped. "Serah, you don't think Miriam really hates Zipporah and told Moses that, do you?"
"Of course not," Serah said sharply. "Shua, you know better than that."
Shua looked abashed. "I know. I do. Miriam doesn't hate anyone, and Zipporah's too nice anyway, no matter what old Maachah says."
Serah's lips twitched; she was old enough to be Maachah's mother. "Now, dear heart, let us be kind to Maachah. But you are old enough to think for yourself, Shua." She only hoped someone was telling Hammoleketh and the rest of the girls the same thing.
As she spoke, she saw Zipporah striding up to them. She had a moment to be grateful that Zipporah had not come while Shua was spreading Maachah's tales, and then Zipporah said breathlessly, "Serah! I have wanted to speak to you. With Miriam gone, the girls need a teacher, and —" She trailed off.
Serah was able to finish the sentence in her head. And you cannot do it yourself, Zipporah, because you know quite well that some of the girls' mothers have turned them against you, like young Hammoleketh.
Zipporah said, "Serah, I think you would be lovely at teaching the children. Could you do this?"
Shua looked from Serah to Zipporah and back again. "Oh, Serah! Do say yes! I agree, you would be marvelous!" Zipporah grinned at Shua, and Shua shyly grinned back.
Serah frowned slightly. She was getting old, perhaps too old to do these things. And she had never had daughters of her own, so what could she say to them? On the other hand, she had often thought that Miriam took too much upon herself as the center of the lives of the women of Israel. She had even told Miriam this a time or two. And then, she had just hoped someone would do for the other girls what she did for Shua; perhaps that someone must be her. The Lord has heard your thoughts, she thought to herself, amused. It is time to see whether you actually meant them.
"Of course I will help, as best I can," Serah said gently to young Zipporah.
No one knew what it was like. No one knew the pain of having lost the son who had grown up with her. And worse: that he had been put to death for sinning against the Lord. She knew that the old gossips must wag their tongues every time she passed by: that's old Dibri's daughter, the mother of that Egyptian half-breed, no wonder the boy turned out the way he did, with her for a mother!
Oh, Miriam had come to her, had tried to minister to her, but she was a prophetess, the sister of Moses, the wife of Hur, the mother of righteous progeny; what could she know of Shelomith's pain? Shelomith had not cried, then or ever, for her child; she would not give any of them the satisfaction.
A voice broke into her thoughts. "Shelomith?"
She turned. It was Elisheba. The wife of the high priest; that wasn't too much better than Miriam. At least she wasn't a prophet.
"Zipporah sent me," Elisheba said.
And Zipporah was the worst of all, the wife of the man who had commanded her son -- her son! -- to be put to death. Elisheba had no doubt come, Shelomith supposed, to lecture her about being the mother of a sinner.
Her emotions bubbled over into words. "Why?" she demanded of Elisheba. "Why did my son have to die?"
She regretted the words as soon as she spoke them. Elisheba would no doubt tell her that it was the Lord's will. That it was part of a greater plan. That Shelomith herself, if she had any faith at all, should be joyful about her son's death.
"I don't know," Elisheba said, almost inaudibly. "I wish I knew. I don't know."
Shelomith stared at her.
"When Nadab and Abihu died —"
And then Shelomith remembered that Elisheba's sons also had been slain, had perished in strange fire from the Lord.
"I love Zipporah, she is my dear friend, my sister in all but blood, but I could not talk to her about it," Elisheba said, low. "It was her husband who brought the fire down from heaven. And even my beloved Aaron — he was their father, he was the priest who should have protected them —"
And Shelomith recognized the pain in Elisheba's voice, the grief in her face; it was the same grief she saw when looking at her reflection in a pool of water. She bowed her head and wept; and Elisheba's arms encircled her.
"And you spoke to Puah about the new mothers and babies? And Mahlah's family —"
"Yes, Elisheba." Sherah held up a hand, as if to ward off Elisheba's words, and grinned at her, looking only slightly harried. "Rest easy. It is all taken care of, for today at least. Tomorrow, of course, is another matter, but let us deal with it when it comes."
Elisheba nodded. Sherah, though barely out of girlhood, was the most organized person she knew. She was efficient and diligent enough to build whole cities, should she wish to. If she said it was done, Elisheba could stop worrying. Well, she could try to stop worrying.
Sherah's smile faltered a little. "Elisheba, I wanted to ask you something. What really happened between Miriam and Moses? I've heard all sorts of things. Joshua told me that the Lord struck Miriam down for daring to think herself better than Moses — but I cannot believe it, not of Miriam."
"Joshua wasn't there," Elisheba said shortly.
"And you were," said Sherah, looking at her intently.
Elisheba nodded. "Well." She gathered her thoughts. "Miriam went to Moses, dragging Aaron and me along, and it is true she did speak against Moses: she said Moses was wrong not to ask the Israelites to treat Zipporah with more respect. And Moses told her that this was between them and her, and the Lord, and that he could not and would not command any of them in such a matter."
She went on: "And he wanted to know why she had brought up the subject right then, why she had suddenly decided to come down on him for this." She took a deep breath. "It transpired that Miriam had had a sun-blister for some time; she had seen Puah about it, but it was getting worse. And -- and -- it was because she thought she might die soon that she was forcing the issue now."
Sherah put a hand to her mouth in distress, and no wonder: the skin-blister disease killed swiftly once it started progressing. Both Aaron and Moses, Elisheba remembered, had been wild with anguish. Let her not, I pray, be as one dead! Aaron had cried out. Elisheba herself had only been numb with sorrow. Sherah said, "But we were told — Zipporah said — that she would be back in a week, that she was well and whole."
"And that is true, now. Miriam and Moses prayed, and —" Elisheba's voice faltered. "The power of the Holy One made it so."
As long as she lived she would not forget it. It was a smaller thing than the parting of the Red Sea, or the commandments at Sinai, but no less wonderful for all that: the inner light suffusing Moses and Miriam until she could hardly see them, the skin-blister gone as the light ebbed; the shaking and the exaltation in Miriam's voice as she told them that the word of the Lord took her outside the camp for seven days.
Sherah let out a breath. "I see… But why do you not say what you have seen? Why allow them to talk of Miriam in this way?"
"Moses asked us not to discuss it," said Elisheba, sighing. "He is the most meek of men, and the most private, and he did not want the entire camp in Miriam's and Zipporah's business."
"But — Elisheba — I am sure you have heard the rumors. Miriam and Moses lead Israel, so they will make it their business whether he wishes or no. You must be a witness to the truth."
Elisheba thought of the glory of the Holy One on Miriam's brow, the joy in her voice, and nodded. "He meant well, but he did not understand how it would be. I should not have agreed. I will speak to Zipporah, and to Moses."
And, Elisheba thought, Sherah's smile held a little of the light that she had seen in Miriam's face.
Miriam prayed, alone in the wilderness.
She gave thanks and praise for her healing. She prayed for her brothers; she prayed for Zipporah her sister; she prayed for Elisheba her sister.
She prayed for Israel. She worried about them, the daughters of Israel whom she loved as her own children; she wondered how they were faring without her. She named them by name in her prayers: Shelomith, Maachah, Serah, Hammoleketh, Puah, Sherah… she named them one by one to the God of Israel.
"Why have you decreed I am to be away from my people?" she asked aloud. "Why have you taken me away from those I would help? I would understand thy will in this matter."
There was silence from the heavens and the earth.
She continued to pray. All day and all night she did not cease to cry unto God.
And there was then a great wind, and after the wind there was a stillness. And into the stillness there came a voice unto her saying: Miriam, my child.
"Here I am, O Holy One," she answered.
The voice of God came to her again. Miriam. My beloved daughter. See and remember.
And she found herself as it were on a high mountain, looking at the camp of Israel. Though she was high above them, she could see their faces as clearly as if she were among them.
And she saw:
She saw Serah, a circle of girls sitting at her feet, gazing at her raptly. She saw Shelomith and Sherah walking together, Shelomith saying something hesitantly to her companion, who gazed at her with affectionate concern. She saw Elisheba, talking earnestly to Puah and Mahlah. She saw Zipporah, putting a hand on Hammoleketh's shoulder, turning to smile at Maachah, who hesitantly smiled back.
So had they come together without Miriam, with Zipporah. And Miriam saw that, with her gone from the camp, they could learn to understand and love Zipporah.
And each other.
Miriam saw the lines of love, of service, connecting all of them together. Not just between Miriam herself and the camp, though those bonds were bright and strong. She saw all of them connected to each other and to God: together they made a pattern whose true nature and immensity she could only begin to understand. It was larger than Miriam, or Zipporah, or Elisheba or Aaron or Moses. It was a pattern that was Israel.
Israel is learning this, she thought. And I, too, was sent here to be taught. I thought that as a prophet of God I could command them to love, that I might be the irreplaceable center and heart of Israel, that I might take upon myself all things. But in this matter Zipporah has been wiser than I.
Art thou answered, my child?
I am, she replied, her soul rising within her, and she began to sing.
Thou in thy mercy hast led forth the people which thou hast redeemed:
Thou hast guided them in thy strength unto thy holy habitation. Exodus 15:13